2019 Playoffs: Conference Finals

Went 1 of 4 last round– batting a total of 25% on the playoffs, so here goes a whole lot of nothing.

BOSTON vs. CAROLINA
Prediction: Carolina in 7
Reason: I’ve been low on Carolina, but they’ve done great. They’ve also got a longer layoff, which would be great this time of the year, especially with the injuries they’ve encountered recently. Even if Petr Mrazek is done, Curtis McElhinney has been stellar, while Sebastian Aho is starting to really turn to form with Justin Williams there. That said, Tuukka Rask has looked better than ever and could very well carry the Bruins onward.

SAN JOSE vs. ST. LOUIS
Prediction: San Jose in 7
Reason: They’ve gone seven the past two series, why not a third?? Martin Jones has really turned it around for the most part, while Joe Pavelski coming back could very well give them the jolt they may have needed. The defense may need to tighten up a bit, while Jordan Binnington could be their toughest foe goalie yet. Also, Jaden Schwartz has been stellar and David Perron could be the thorn in the side needed to maybe rustle the Sharks’ jimmies.

On the Topic Of Parity, Marketing, and Bitterness of the NHL Playoffs

The other day, a writer for The Athletic tweeted something “edgy” about the comparison about the NHL and NBA playoffs. It’s often something that circles the wagon of hockey fans to unite in saying how much better hockey is than basketball. To which NBA fans couldn’t care less because they are focused on their playoffs because they don’t have a chip on their shoulder about their sport’s standing in the US.

Ah, yes– the great parity debate and the great “playoff system is broken” rallying cry. Look, I’ve gone over the playoff system before and it’s not great, but it’s the best we’ve got since people wanted more rivalries. In the new system, the only match-up that would have been changed is the Bruins would face the Penguins and the Islanders would have the Maple Leafs. For what it’s worth, the Eastern and Western Conferences would have had the same match-ups in the second round with re-seeding.

Shocking. Something doesn’t go Toronto’s way and people kick up a giant fuss. To counter that– because it seems he heard a lot of that– he tweeted this.

To which, another user had a reply to him to counterpoint this writer:

You cannot compare the two playoffs– so doing such is stupid. The NBA has clear winners and losers in their game. There’s no point for an overtime loss– it’s just a loss and no ground gained for the losing team. Hockey’s one point for extra time loss. Why even have the loser point anymore?? Just have a straight loss and that’s that. No incentive for losing, actually play to win the damn game.

More over…isn’t parity something that people love about hockey…hell, love about sports?? Are Toronto media and fans– OF ALL PEOPLE– tired of parity happening and other teams in maybe non-traditional markets actually getting some kind of success at the expense of them?? It’s a helluva thing, isn’t it??

Yet, there’s a much better thing that people are missing from the amount of parity that happens in the league and that’s the casual fan being lost during playoff parity. Look, I won’t lie– I go back and forth when it comes to parity in hockey all the time. As much as I like the idea long-shot story being a thing…it does hurt the casual fan base in the US and thus, the ratings– which is really what people look at when it comes to judging the popularity of a sport. Losing the likes of Alex Ovechkin, Sidney Crosby, Steven Stamkos, PK Subban, and to a lesser extent (not a short joke) Johnny Gaudreau– they are names that are somewhat recognizable to the casual hockey viewer.

Of course, that then falls on the NHL, NBC, and the marketing of them both. NBC wants ratings, so they’ll go with teams that have a bigger following nationally– rightly or wrongly. When you hang your hat on those teams, you leave a lot of room for error and a lot of room for people missing out on teams that should be profiled later on in the season. The NHL wants to put out their superstars– so the Caps and Pens are thrown out on national broadcast ad nauseum.

It’s really up to the NHL’s marketing department to work with NBC to make people care about players in Carolina and Dallas and Colorado and the other markets who are underserved. There’s no conceivable reason that every team cannot be the focus of some of these Wednesday Night Hockey deals that NBCSN has. Hell, the NBC afternoon games would be great for the teams out west with an afternoon eastern start time.

So, how did this start as a self-righteous Toronto writer comparing the remaining seeds of the NHL and NBA to the marketing of the NHL and NBC need to be better?? I don’t know. Things just work that way. The point is the NHL needs to be better for their teams so that when some of these teams goes on a “shocking playoff run,” it won’t matter that some of the top names are out because the NHL and NBC would be profiling stars across the league by showing their games rather than just mentioning them in passing during the season in highlight packages.

NHL Playoffs 2019: Round Two

Photo via the NHL Media Website

All the top seeds are out. The NHL scurried to get a “Second Chance” bracket thing to make people more engaged. Here’s my picks after going two for eight in the first round….so bet against me.

BOSTON vs. COLUMBUS
Prediction: Boston in 7
Reason: The long layoff will help Columbus, while the old guard will hinder Boston to start. The Bruins may get another life in the middle of the series, especially if Brad Marchand can keep his pace up, while also hoping Patrice Bergeron can find some scoring touch and Zdeno Chara can not break. The Blue Jackets are driven and it’s interesting to see what John Tortorella does to keep his team rolling, but I think the Bruins could be a bit much for them.

NY ISLANDERS vs. CAROLINA
Prediction: Islanders in 6
Reason: Another team with a long layoff, but it could help the Islanders focus more and be able to breakdown what the Canes did to beat the Caps, especially with Barry Trotz at the helm. Robin Lehner needs to have a repeat of the first round, while the Canes will need to find an extra gear in their quick turnaround. This will be the series with the worst ice conditions, though.

DALLAS vs. ST. LOUIS
Prediction: Dallas in 5
Reason: Much like Johan Hedberg before him, the rookie sensation that is Jordan Binnington is primed for a falling and with the Stars looking like world beaters and a healthy Ben Bishop in net, it could be quick work for the Stars moving forward.

SAN JOSE vs. COLORADO
Prediction: Colorado in 6
Reason: As great as the comeback of the Sharks were, you could see there were cracks. With that, it just gives more time for Nathan MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen, and the crew to rest. Though it’ll come down to which Martin Jones shows up for the Sharks and if Philipp Grubauer can keep it going for Colorado.

Back to…..the Drawing Board

It was fun at the top while it lasted.

But the Caps didn’t do themselves any favors with their play in the playoffs. There were a lot of things that they could have done better. There’s things that they didn’t do last year that they did this year. There’s things they didn’t adjust to when the Hurricanes looked so much hungrier than the Caps did.

First, the biggest thing is the lack of pressuring when they were ahead. They were up in Game Five and let it slip away. They were up by two twice in Game Seven and it ended in a double-OT loss. Maybe it was just too many games for a lot of these guys and they kind of ran out of gas. Maybe it was not being able to adjust to injuries in their line-up. Maybe it was a lot of things…the Caps just couldn’t put the Canes away.

Second, defensively there were a tire fire. An honest to god tire fire. So many turnovers in their own zone leading to quality chances for the Canes was amazingly frustrating. Whether it be dangerous passes up the middle, whether it dangerous passes in front of Braden Holtby, whether it the forwards lack of breakout support for the the defensive which– hey– caused more turnovers. There so many times the Caps went for a home-run pass the length of the ice that the Canes played perfectly in the neutral zone that I lost count and just had a heavy sigh about it. Yet– there was no adjustment.

Rod Brind’Amour adjusted better than Todd Reirden did and it showed in the result. While they shuffled some lines in Game Seven, the grand scheme of things came down to Brind’Amour getting his team much more into it that Reirden could. To a man, Canes players were behind their coach and always commented about his fiery nature to get the team going. I didn’t hear one Caps say the same about Reirden, at least on the record.

And I won’t blame losing TJ Oshie to injury. That’s a part of the game and you have to adjust– which the Caps didn’t. One of the things it did take away was low-end options on the power play. Oshie’s play in the slot was some of the nice decoys for Ovechkin to get some more space. Without that option and a fill-in to act like that (sorry Tom Wilson), the Canes were able to give the Caps minimal chances to convert.

They did what they could though. The top line was solid with Nicklas Backstrom leading the way in the goal-scoring and Alex Ovechkin being the set-up man, which was an amazing change of pace. Tom Wilson was able to get into some dirty areas at times, but maybe could have done more.

Holtby was not himself, though. Lot of soft goals, lot of saves he could have made last year that snuck by this year. Like I said, his defense didn’t help him out at all. If anything, that’s a key point to look at for next year and how they can build around John Carlson and Nick Jensen. There needs to be some help out there because Dmitri Orlov and Matt Niskanen are hit-and-miss, Brooks Orpik is out of fuel, Jonas Siegenthaler needs more time, Christian Djoos somehow isn’t cutting it. They just need to hope Michal Kempny is ready to tear up the league next year.

Lest we forget the Luis Mendoza Line (all speed, questionable hands) of Evgeny Kuznetsov, Jakub Vrana, and Carl Hagelin. When you need a secondary scoring line and it’s more of the third and fourth lines getting it done– there’s an issue. Kuznetsov, aside from the goal, seemed to be more than snakebit this series, Vrana was near invisible for the duration, and Hagelin was good on some penalty kills, but overall not worth retaining– unless they can get a good deal on him.

The Caps had a good season. It’s hard to top what they put forward last year and unless they would have swept everyone or beat everyone in Game Sevens, the dramatics were not there. Personally, this is probably the calmest I’ve been when it comes to losing a series, especially when you see them outworked as they were when you look at the greater picture.

Thank you Capitals for the ride over the past 10 months, it was fun while it lasted. Now, it’s time to reflect, figure out who’s going to be here next year, and find that hunger again.

Caps By The Numbers: Backstrom With Another Two-Goal Game

In what could be the most complete Caps game in the series, the defending Stanley Cup champions put a six-spot on the Carolina Hurricanes to go ahead three-games to two in the series with a chance to close it out on Monday. Nicklas Backstrom’s hot hand continued with two goals, Alex Ovechkin had a goal and two assists, and Nic Dowd put up a penalty shot goal for the Caps.

It was the first game without TJ Oshie, who is out indefinitely with an upper-body injury. Devante Smith-Pelly, last year’s breakout playoff star, was called up and was the energy boost the Caps seemed to need for Game 5.

When you talked playoffs heroes in DC, there was always one name that came to mind. And he’s the #19 I picked in the Trail to Dale.

Photo by Bruce Bennett

Up until last season, John Druce was a man of Capitals lore. The run that he had during the 1990 playoffs was one that every role player wants to have. While Alex Ovechkin was able to beat his goal total for a single playoff, the short time that John Druce was in Washington was one thing that most Capitals fans shouldn’t forget.

The former second-round draft pick but the Capitals in 1985, Druce plyed his craft in Peterborough of the OHL where he was a serviceable player, with his stats getting increasingly better over his tenure there. The same goes for his time in the AHL with the Binghamton Whalers and Baltimore Skipjacks, which included a 30-goal season with the Whalers. The consistency would continue onto the Caps, where he would split time between Landover and Baltimore. While he was very unassuming in the 1989-90 season, something went very right in the 1990 playoffs, where he was able to create a lot of much for the Caps.

While the first round was the Dino Ciccarelli show, Druce was able to muster three goals in the six-game series. However, Ciccarelli would be injured in the second round against the Rangers, which allowed John Druce to take over offensively. In the five game series, Druce had nine goals and two assists, including a hat-trick in Game Two and OT series-winner in Game Five. Druce would only put up two more goals and one more assist of that playoffs, as the Caps were outplayed by the Boston Bruins in the Conference Finals.

Druce came back to the Caps for the 1990-91 season and would register his only 20-goal and 50-point season of his career. He couldn’t recreate the same magic in the 1991 playoffs, only putting up a goal and assist in 11 games for the Caps, while in the 1991-92 season, Druce had 19 goals and 18 assist, but only one goal in the playoffs. Druce got moved to Winnipeg in the summer of 1992 and then had stops in Los Angeles and Philadelphia before hanging up the skates.

After playing, Druce spent five years doing junior hockey commentary for Rogers Sportsnet before going into financial advising and then co-founding Unique Vehicle Wraps, a company for advertising on cars, trucks, and buses. While some people may forget his playing career overall, I don’t think many will forget his goal-scoring abilities in the 1990 playoffs for the Caps.

Lightning Crashes

Yeah I used a 1994 song title for this blog in 2019, big whoop.

The point is that it’s over for the Tampa Bay Lightning. With 62 wins in an 82 game season, they have yet to record a win in three games to the last seed in the Eastern Conference. Since the first period of Game One, they have only mustered two goals in the next 160 minutes.

Before I go any further– full marks to John Tortorella for amping up his team to go out and take it to the top seed in hockey. There were many questions about if this team would even make it to the playoffs after going all-in at the Trade Deadline, but now it’s looking like it’s finally paying off. The fact they are a win away from completing one of the biggest upsets in playoff history shows this is a team who somehow found chemistry in the last month of the season.

But now to the Lightning– who in the previous four post-seasons have been to the Conference Finals three times and the Stanley Cup Final once. They have had one of the most potent offenses in the league and developed some low-key players– like Brayden Point– into a diamond in the rough. Hell, they just re-signed Jon Cooper to a multi-year extension at the end of March.

How much are they rethinking this after the Bolts developed a case of the Presidents Trophy flu??

But let’s not just use the coach as a scapegoat. No, let’s look at the scoring for the Bolts…or lackthereof. Steven Stamkos– zero points. Victor Hedman– zero points. Nikita Kucherov– no points and was suspended. The aforementioned Point– zero points. Defensively hasn’t been much better with Andrei Vasilevskiy being either bored or tired or both– sporting a GAA around four and a save percentage of .866.

Maybe, just maybe the window for a Cup has been shuttered down. Maybe, this team is just a really good regular season team and then playoffs they morph into the proverbial pumpkin at midnight. Sure does sound like the Caps before last season, this much I know.

Yet, is this a team with the chops to counterattack the possible biggest upset ever with the possible biggest comeback ever?? Well, Vasilevskiy switched pads, so who knows?? But it’s up to Jon Cooper to rally the troops and make it happen. It seems that, however, once they hit the easy button after those first 20 minutes of the series, the team is in a funk it can’t snap out of. You’d think that first game would be a wake-up call to maybe dial into that higher gear they were able to find in the regular season.

Then in Game Two they got trounced on home-ice.

When you have played this many games in a five-year span, you’d have to think your horses are gassed, regardless of the conditioning. You look at the Pittsburgh Penguins right now and they seem to be feeling that same effect in these playoffs as well.

There was going to be a change in Tampa regardless due to the salary cap issues and four of their defensemen turning into UFAs and Brayden Point being an RFA and will probably command an handsome bank for his regular season efforts. As it stands right now, who knows who will stay and who will go– but this team may have a longer time to stew about it when they get eliminated in the next coming days.

Caps By The Numbers: Overtime Orpik

Of all the people to score an overtime winner, Brooks Orpik was probably the last guess. The long-shot did just that, however, as the veteran defenseman took a lovely pass from Evgeny Kuznetsov and launched it over the shoulder of Petr Mrazek to win the game 4-3 and put the Caps up 2-0 in the series. The Caps and Canes traded goals– first two, then one– with Nicklas Backstrom and TJ Oshie having goals, then two for the Canes, then Tom Wilson putting on through Mrazek before Jordan Staal tied it on the power play to send it to overtime. Orpik came off the bench on a change to find a pass and then the back of the net.

The game was not without controversy, as Nick Dowd took a hit from Micheal Ferland, to which Ferland got a match penalty. From looking at it, it’s shocking how the referees gave him a match, as the principle point of contact was to Dowd’s right arm. Nevertheless, the Caps couldn’t score on the major penalty.

With that…we go to win #18 for the Caps in the past two seasons. This time, we’ll look at someone who– when you think Capitals hockey, you think your good buddy Locker.


Craig Laughlin was one of the guys who came over to the Capitals in the Rod Langway trade. A trade that helped the Caps not only with Langway’s defensive game, but also gave the Caps a crop of color commentators in Laughlin and Brian Engblom to choose from when their careers were over.

However, as much as we know Laughlin now as the long-time color guy, many forget what a stand-out he was with the Caps in the mid-80s. Not much of the flash-and-dash, but a serviceable player for that team and was able to pot a lot of goals. Three 20-plus-goal seasons, including 30 in 1985-86; four 50-plus-point seasons, and a bit of a power play specialist with 41 of his 110 goals as a Capitals coming with the man-advantage (37.3%).

The Capitals traded Laughlin in 1988 to Los Angeles and after that season, he went to Toronto for a season, then Germany for another before hanging up his skates and returning to Washington in 1990 to start his career in broadcasting. He’s been a mainstay of the Caps broadcasts since, but it’s not just because of his skills behind the mic do people in Washington enjoy Locker.

Laughlin has always came out in the hockey community to help youth players grow their game. I remember skating at Piney Orchard, the old Capitals practice rink, and see Locker around, skating with rec league teams and giving kids pointers about their game. Laughlin created Network Hockey that focuses on player development for players in the DC/Maryland/Virginia area and helps them get to the next level.

While he was born in Toronto, Craig Laughlin found his home with the Capitals and bridges the generational gap for Capitals fans 29 years after starting his broadcasting career.

Caps By The Numbers: Backstrom’s Two Goals Propel Caps to Start Cup Defense

It was a great start for the Washington Capitals in their first ever Cup defense with three goals in the first period from their top dogs of Nicklas Backstrom (with 2) and Alex Ovechkin– but then almost got people puckered when the Carolina Hurricanes scored two goals in the third period under three minutes apart. Luckily, Lars Eller got that magic going and ended the game to give the Capitals a Game One win by the count of 4-2.

Because of that– they have kicked off the “Trail to Dale” for the Caps by the Numbers Segment. This installment…Mike Ridley.

When it comes to constant scorers for the Capitals in the late-80s, Ridley was one of those guys who brought SEVEN 20-plus goal seasons to the Capitals from his tenure from his trade from the Rangers to the Caps January 1st of 1987. Even in that 40 games of the 1986-87 season, he put up 15 goals in those 40 games he was with the Caps in his early going. On top of that he had 329 assists for the Caps in 588 games, putting to a total of 547 in his seven-and-a-half years.

One of the big years for Ridley was heading into the 1989-90 season when Ridley, along with Dino Ciccarelli and Geoff Courtnall were dubbed the “Goalbusters” by the marketing staff thanks to Ridley’s 41 goals, Courtnall’s 42 goals, and Ciccarelli’s 44 (11 goals in 12 games with the Caps) in the 1988-89 season. The poster was a joy to have in my room because it was cool when I was six.

After his fifth 70-point season in 1993-94, the Caps traded Ridley and a pick to Toronto for Rob Pearson and a draft pick. Ridley found a bit of a scoring touch with the Leafs in his first season (the shortened one) with the Leafs, but was traded to Vancouver in the offseason. An injury shortened season in 1995-96 hampered his production, but he got one final 20-goal season before he went off into the sunset.

Ridley never got as much credit as a star for the Caps that someone like Peter Bondra or Ciccarelli got. He wasn’t that flashy, wasn’t that vocal, didn’t cause a stir– he just went out there and did work, but never got the folk hero status he justly deserves for his tenure with the Caps during one of the peak times for possible Caps success.

While I haven’t been able to find where he’s at, his legacy lives on as an honoured member of the Manitoba Sports Hall of Fame and has the top scorer trophy of the Manitoba Junior Hockey League named after him, as well as having an endowment award at his alma mater– the University of Manitoba– for the men’s and women’s hockey team. His number is retired by the Bison, as well. Here’s to you, Ridley– maybe the team can honor you like you deserve one day.

NHL Playoffs 2019: Round One

Since no one asked– here’s my picks and a reason.

TAMPA BAY vs. COLUMBUS
Prediction: Tampa in 5
Reason: As much as I may no believe in the Lightning down the stretch, the Blue Jackets were too hot going into the playoffs to have much left in the tank. Also, Nikita Kucherov will most likely continue to step-up his game in the second season.

BOSTON vs. TORONTO
Prediction: Boston in 6
Reason: We’ve seen this song before and Toronto isn’t that great against Boston in the playoffs. Goaltending is a disaster for the Leafs, while their defense isn’t much better.

WASHINGTON vs. CAROLINA
Prediction: Washington in 6
Reason: Give the Jerks credit, they clawed back to get in this spot. However, the Caps seem to enjoy feasting on the Canes in life. Plus, the Caps want to get back to the Promised Land to hoist the Cup again, so they’ll do whatever it takes to win it again

NY ISLANDERS vs. PITTSBURGH
Prediction: Penguins in 6
Reason: As much as I want to believe in Robin Lehner and Thomas Greiss; Sidney Crosby, Phil Kessel, and a somewhat healthy Evgeni Malkin trump that. Only hope is Matt Murray stinking up the joint

CALGARY vs. COLORADO
Prediction: Calgary in 6
Reason: Goaltending aside, the Flames won the Western Conference for a reason. Especially with Mikko Rantanen just coming back from injury– who knows how effective he will be. Though, some pressure may be on Johnny Gaudreau and friends to make an unexpected run.

SAN JOSE vs. VEGAS
Prediction: Vegas in 5
Reason: Playoffs is about defense and as much as the Sharks have Brent Burns and Erik Karlsson to add some punch offensively, Martin Jones hasn’t been great. The Knights enjoyed a nice taste last year and probably want to make people know it wasn’t a fluke.

WINNIPEG vs. ST. LOUIS
Prediction: St. Louis in 7
Reason: I don’t know why, but the Blues could be a sleeper team to make some noise. They weren’t even supposed to be here, but Jordan Binnington decided that he’d show Jake Allen how to play in net. They’ll be a tough out with JB in net.

NASHVILLE vs. DALLAS
Prediction: Nashville in 6
Reason: With the window for the Preds and all their talent, it could be the perfect time for them to run wild in the West. They probably still feel the sting of the lost to Winnipeg and want to make a statement run at the Cup this year.

On the Topic Of Fickle Coaching Decisions

Sunday, both Phil Housley and Bob Boughner were fired from their teams only two years into their tenure behind the benches of the Buffalo Sabres and Florida Panthers respectively. We all know coaches are hired to be fired and often they get fired due to the general manager’s inability to build a good roster for them– but only two years behind the bench seems like a mere blink of the eye when you look at the bigger picture.

These are teams that need stability and to have coaches there for that little of a time doesn’t help their cause for that. For Buffalo, post-Lindy Ruff since November 2013– no head coach has survived more than two years. Ron Rolston, Ted Nolan, Dan Bylsma and now Housley have all had short tenures not lasting longer than two seasons. For Florida post-Kevin Dineen after the 2012-13 season the Panthers have gone through Peter Horachek, Gerard Gallant, Tom Rowe, and now Boughner.

Of course, of the two, Housley didn’t have the best of success, only going 58-84-22 in his two years while having a group of young talent at his disposal, but goaltending being a question mark since Dominik Hasek left. Boughner went 80-62-22 while having a talented group that had a top power play, penalty kill, but lacked goaltending. I’m sensing a theme with the goaltending.

Regardless of that, having only a limited time to actually figure out how to coach a team that may not be the top notch squad seems like an impossible task that makes someone destined to fail. Only one year to get situation and then if you can’t get to the playoffs in the second year, it’s done?? I get that there’s a “win now, make money” mentality, but to have this lack of stability– especially for young players on the team– can’t be great from outsiders who teams may be courting in free agency.

It seems to always come to the GMs making bad deals and the owners allowing them to make those bad deals. It hampers any kind of progress most of the times, while giving anyone behind the bench a payday, but a short-term payday. Hell, even college coaches get a full class (four years) to prove their worth. Of course, this isn’t college and some players aren’t willing to adjust and adapt to win. Some players want coaches to fit their styles rather than the other way around. That’s on the GM to get the right chemistry in the room to make them a winner regardless of the coach.

Head coaching is a fickle thing. Most times you’re given a bad roster and tasked to make them into Cup champions. Owners and GM have lofty goals from the onset and these guys aren’t paid enough to have to deal with these lofty goals and deal with some prima donnas that don’t fit the vision they have for the team they want to inherit.

Granted, if they go somewhere else and succeed with the right roster in the right situation, then these GMs and owners will look even more foolish than they have been for letting them go in such a short time.